In January of 2023, Minnesotans watched as three Black women were sworn into the state senate for the first time in history. As the African community in the state celebrated the remarkable achievements, few would have thought that there was a little known organization working tirelessly behind the scenes to ensure the women succeeded. Ayada Leads is a Minneapolis-based nonprofit that connects hopeful women of color with the resources they need to run for public office.
Now, as the state has just wrapped their local elections, the team at Ayada Leads can reflect on the work they do to support local female candidates of color running for seats in the state.
“We want to see more women of the African diaspora in office,” said Habon Abdulle, a Somali American who serves as the executive director of the organization. “We believe women are the champions of the community.”
Ayada Leads was established in 2018 by a group of predominantly Somali community and was initially as the “Women Organizing Women Network” (WOW). The new name reflects their African roots as the word “Ayada” means “she” in Somali, making the current name translate to “she leads.” In their purpose statement, the team claims that the name “Ayada Leads” “better reflects who we are.”
“We want to acknowledge our background,” Abdulle said.
Whether due to personal doubts or systemic barriers, women of African descent often hesitate to enter contests for political leadership positions. Of the 21 recorded Black legislators in Minnesota’s history since 1899, only eight have been women, according to the Minnesota Legislative Reference Library. Even so, winning the elections is only half the battle. Despite increasing attitudes toward inclusivity, Black women holding public office seats still say they feel they are operating in spaces not designed for them. Ayada Leads seeks to equip women of the African diaspora with tools and support as they prepare for life as a public servant.
“We are still seen as ‘other,’” Abdulle said. “There are women who were born here in the U.S. who have African descent but they get told they don’t belong here.”
Abdulle arrived in Minneapolis from Somalia in 2000. Having had a “passion for gender equality,” she said she noticed that women of African descent were often in the shadows of their male counterparts – a discrepancy that fueled her to explore how she could change the narrative.
“Someone who was fit for office [would still be] working behind the scenes” Abdulle said.
One of the women who has benefited immensely from Ayala Leads’ efforts is newly elected Sen. Zaynab Mohamed, who also serves as deputy executive director of the organization. Mohamed said she initially got involved in 2019 as a volunteer. She said she wanted to not only be involved with a community organization that helps diaspora women of all ages, but also one that reflected her Somali identity.
“I had heard about Habon and I was intrigued,” Mohamed said.
Mohamed began her new role in the organization early last year. Along with six other employees, she hopes Ayada Leads could continue to be a safe space for Black women in the political sphere. She mentioned the programs Ayada has launched to prepare female leaders, including “Born to Lead”, which celebrates the intersectional identities of women of color running for political office. She hoped the organization could continue to positively impact women in these spaces through its programs.
“If it can help one person the way it helped me, that is the goal,” Mohamed said.
At the core of Ayada Leads are three programs. The “Ayada Political Campaign Training” is an educational program created to teach women about the electoral process, from fundraising and budgeting to networking and campaign development. Also featured are the “Future Leaders in the Making” and “Engaged Citizens” programs, which aim to empower women and girls to find their inner leader and become active participants in local legislative decision-making. Lastly, Ayada Leads hosts themed events to promote civic literacy.
When looking at the spike in Black women holding public office seats, Abdulle said she felt proud that Ayada Leads continues to play part in a rapidly changing narrative.
“When they ask the question, ‘Why women?’ we reply, ‘Why not?’”